“The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathise empathise, synthesise, and glean insights that enable him or her to ‘make the invisible visible’. – Hillman Curtis
Back in the 15th century German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg developed a new form of printing using raised type and hand carved engravings. To this day, the mass used method is commonly known as letterpress printing.
Originating over 500 years ago, letterpressing quickly became the primary method for printing and publishing books around the world. Craftsmen would painstakingly hand carve entire pages and scripts into wooden blocks, whittling away the free space around the text, to proved a stamp-like design. The block would then be fully inked and layered beneath paper. A rubbing motion was used to transfer the ink impression onto the paper above, thus producing the first printed book. Despite this process requiring a high skill level and being very time-consuming, the woodblock method was a far more useful, easier and much quicker way of printing, when compared to the earlier hand written scribes.
During the early days of production, Gutenberg produced his own individual wooden letters, which could easily be removed and rearranged, to create any and all words, thus being the invention of movable text. However, he came to realise that the medium used for the printing blocks left his work low in clarity and hard to read. This led Gutenberg to experiment with media such as glass and metal.
Upon his findings, Gutenberg decided to replace the previously used wooden blocks, with that of metal type. As well, a newly designed wooden forme was created to hold the text and thus allowing Gutenberg to print multiple pages at a time. Complete with lead rules and spacers, the new style of printing would produce a crisper, more legible print.
During the 20th century, letterpress became the secondary printing choice for designers and commercial producers, due to more convenient methods such as offset and flexography. Cheaper, more quicker printing productions soon became the go to for many. However, many artists and designers still use letterpress over batch producing machinery, due to the hand crafted style and unique finish, which is produced.
German Artist and Craftsman, Daniel Hopfer first invented etching round about the 1500s. The style of printmaking required little knowledge of metal work and could be easily practiced by those who were trained in drawing.
Metal plates, mainly zinc, copper or steel are first coated using a wax-like substance, called ground. Ground is an acid-resistant matter, which is then drawn upon via the artist. The metal needle used exposes the plates beneath, and is then submerged into acid. The acidic liquid erodes the bare metal lines, thus creating a stamp-like design. After, ink is applied and the plate is stamped, to produce a printed version of the hand drawn design.
Over the years, like any other printing method, there have been vast developments within the etching process. French Printmaker, Jacques Callot added a small, yet significant change to the etching technique. Inventing the echoppe process, Callot was able to use a fine needle with an oval tip, to thus create a gradual rising line within the etching. To further his work, he then began to experiment with a range of materials and formulas for the waxy ground, to create a superior mixture. Callot found that by using this new combination, it allowed the acid to produce a deeper, finer line, thus producing a crisper print, as well as preserving the copper plate longer, extending it’s life span.
Finally, Jacques Callot begun to experiment further with a range of styles, including that of the ‘stopping out’ technique. This required the etcher to allow the acid to erode the whole plate, before covering it in ground and re-soaking it. This process allowed Callot to produce smooth, shaded area on the plate.
Back in 1875, English man Robert Barclay invented the first known offset printing press. This machine was conducted using a metal plate or hard stone, which would directly print the design onto a metal slab. Here, three cylinders; either two metal or stone and one rubber, would pull the printing material through the press, thus transferring the design.
During the early 1900s, when photography became popular amongst the people, offset lithography slowly became the second choice method of printing, with photoengraving becoming a more and more chosen printing technique. However, when Barclay forgot to load the printing material into the press, he discovered that the rubber cylinder produced a sharper, crisper print, when compared to the previously used metal cylinder. Due to this discovery, offset printing once again flourished.
Even to this day, nearly 150 years later, offset lithography is one of the most popular choices of printing. This is mainly due to it’s quickly, cost effective and simple production, which gives a noticeably clear and precise print. Over the years, many changes have been made to the printing technique, including specialising the rubber cylinders, for an added streamlined effect, thus producing picture perfect results. As well, back in the early 2000’s, an American offset printing company called Man Roland, obtained personal rights to the magnetic braking system, which is used within an offset printing machine, and developed the pieced of hardware further, to allow for a faster printing method.
Introduced in the 20th century, linocut was largely belittled by many artists and designers, due to it not be sufficiently demanding for their technical skills and requirements.
The process consists of carving out the desired design into a block of linoleum. Linoleum is a type of floor covering made by mixing together materials such as ground cork dust, wood flour, pine rosin, solidified linseed oil and selected fillers like calcium carbonate. This carving method produces supple white lines within the linoleum, and can be manipulated in multiple different ways to give a range of textures. Once the desired carving has been achieved, it is then layered with ink and printed onto the chosen material, thus producing a printed image.
Back in the 1800s, linoleum was first created as a floor covering, however, due to the high charge for wood and metal, many designers took to using linoleum as their basis. This specific surface gave a smoother and easier to carve finish due to it’s lack of grain, unlike wood. It is said that linoleum was first used by many schools and amateurs as a cheaper alternative, but was soon discovered by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, thus increasing it’s popularity amongst many other designers. Like many other printing techniques, linocut has risen and fallen on the popularity scale, with artists and printmakers now looking to create a finer, more complex image, which are unable to be achieved on the linoleum blocks.
In conclusion, personally, I feel that out of the four printing crafts that have been analysed, only offset lithography will be seen in the foreseeable future. Not only does it offer a quick, cost effective and efficient print, but also this specific printing technique is practical for many and most printed media such as; leaflets, brochures, posters etc.
However, printing methods such as linocut, etching and letter pressing will slowly become a fine, art only studied by many new aged designers. This is because of the experience and high skill level skill needed to produce a half decent piece of work via these techniques. In comparison, the offset method used to print selected media, is much more simple to conduct making it easy for anyone to print via this method, thus increasing it’s popularity amongst designers, printmakers, artists etc.
In light of these hand crafted masterpieces becoming out dated, many companies will still chose a designer whom can produce a piece of work using such personal and traditional printing methods. This way, the company can make sure that the design they receive is all handcrafted, even down to the very last dot. A handcrafted business card, (for example) shows stronger initiative, creative desire and willingness to go the extra mile as a designer, than those who would have a said card mass printed using offset, for example.
Again, many designers still choose to use such timely techniques like etching, letterpressing and linocut, to add that traditional style to their work. Personally, I would love to see more of these handcrafted pieces of art, as I feel the time, effort and love which has gone into each creation is lost when a printing method such as offset is used. The mass production takes out the satisfaction of finally producing a piece of art.